November 30, 2001

Diagnostic Lab Joins In Bioterrorism Fight

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The Cornell Veterinary College Diagnostic Laboratory is joining in the fight against bioterrorism, particularly against susceptible animals.

In her visit to campus last week, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) described the College of Veterinary Medicine Diagnostic Laboratory as a component of Cornell that makes it a leader in “food production and science research.”

The Diagnostic Laboratory, which focuses on improving the health of food, companion, zoo and other animals, “also seeks to prevent communicable diseases or conditions that have an impact on human health,” according to the website. It handles 700,000 laboratory procedures and consultations annually.

The lab’s two main functions are surveillance of animal populations and detection of “spontaneous,” naturally occurring disease in animals, said Prof. Pat McDonough, acting director of bacteriology at the lab. McDonough, along with Prof. Martin Wiedmann, food science, have “been asked to act as resources” to Clinton’s staff, McDonough said. They recently provided background information for a bill the senator composed.

The laboratory, which has been testing for anthrax in animal populations for years, has increased its surveillance activities in the past couple of months.

“We are in the position of ‘using’ the animal populations as a surveillance tool for the entry of infectious agents we don’t normally encounter,” said Prof. Edward Dubovi, associate director for laboratory operations at the Diagnostic Laboratory.

Dubovi noted how a couple of years ago birds and crows were mysteriously dying, which signaled a potential risk to human health. West Nile virus was determined to be the cause of the birds’ deaths, and in the past two years, the Diagnostic Laboratory has increased its capabilities for dealing with the virus.

In recent months, the lab has received a multitude of phone calls from animal owners inquiring about their pets’ risk of developing anthrax. Dubovi explained that anthrax occurs naturally in some animal populations, such as cattle and other ruminants, who have a low threshold for the disease. “[Anthrax is] a bacterium that exists in soil,” Dubovi said, noting that risk of exposure to cattle and deer increases when the soil becomes dry and wind picks up the anthrax spores.

Some areas of the United States, such as the midwest, are “endemic” areas where anthrax typically occurs in deer or cattle populations. Texas, for example, has lost many animals to anthrax. McDonough said that California also has some endemic areas.

If an anthrax case appears in the animal population in an endemic areas, it is most likely not due to bioterrorism, McDonough said. He noted, though, that central New York is not an endemic area. “The last known case that we know about in terms of anthrax in cattle [in New York State] was in 1984,” Dubovi added.

Carnivores, such as humans, dogs and cats, are not at a great risk for contracting the disease. However, after CNN news reported that cats are susceptible to anthrax, numerous cat owners called the lab with concerns that their pets were at higher risk for developing anthrax. In response, McDonough and other researchers published a fact sheet on dogs’ and cats’ disease risks.

The Diagnostic Laboratory tested cultures from several search-and-rescue and bomb-sniffing dogs from New York City, as well as a few politicians’ dogs from Washington, D.C., McDonough said. All the results came back negative for anthrax. It’s a “very unlikely event” that a dog would develop anthrax, Dubovi said.

Due to enhanced surveillance systems since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s main diagnostic lab in Ames, Iowa, has asked Cornell’s Diagnostic Laboratory to test animal samples in the northeast region. “So we became an unofficial part of the federal system,” Dubovi said. “In terms of the Northeast, we’re the most comprehensive type of diagnostic lab.”

Veterinarians in the field who see suspicious cases or want to confirm their diagnoses can send cultures to the Cornell lab, which will then evaluate the samples and identify the disease. The Diagnostic Laboratory has denied numerous requests to do environmental tests.

In the last few months, however, administrators at the Cornell Diagnostic Laboratory have worked with Cornell Environmental Health and Safety to creating protocols for testing samples of anthrax. “The diagnostic lab is represented in the University’s Emergency Operations Center,” Garcia-Rivera said. “We have been working together with the Diagnostic Laboratory as well as [the Cornell] police in developing new procedures and protocols, so the Diagnostic Laboratory can be of assistance in handling environmental samples that do not meet [investigative] criteria,” Garcia-Rivera said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s definition of a “crime scene” includes human exposure to a powder, accompanied by a threatening letter or phone call.

If suspicious materials meet those criteria, they are sent to the State Department of Health lab in Albany, which is certified to handle such cases. The anthrax scares at Warren Hall and Uris Library this fall did meet the “investigative criteria that warranted submission of such samples to the Department of Health lab in Albany,” said Andy Garcia-Rivera, director of Cornell Environmental Health and Safety.

Just last week, the Diagnostic Laboratory received authorization to test non-crime scene materials, should they be discovered on the Cornell campus. The protocol outlines procedures for containment.

In the event of a widespread anthrax outbreak, however, “the current facilities [at Cornell] aren’t adequate to handle the problem,” Dubovi said. As of now, “We can work with small amounts of material,” he added.

In light of the recent anthrax scares, labs throughout the nation are constructing new facilities that are better able to handle an outbreak, Dubovi said.

“There’s an absolute need for a new facility,” he said. The lab’s capabilities are limited by its facilities. The facility was built in 1975, and according to Dubovi it is 30 years behind the current technology. The Diagnostic Laboratory has a deficit of “biocontainment laboratories,” as well as a lack of funds. The lab’s request for state funding in 1990 was denied.

“We’re fighting a funding problem,” Dubovi said, adding that the veterinary system “is usually last at the table for consideration” of public health funds. He said the lab needs direct state or federal funding. “The animal systems out there become an important part of the public health surveillance system,” Dubovi added.

Archived article by Heather Schroeder